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The Difficult, Delicate Untangling of Our Parents’ Financial Lives

When my in-laws became too incapacitated to handle their own affairs, my wife and I took over. A year and a half later, we’re still trying to figure it all out.

“No, no, no, don’t transfer me to her again,” pleads my wife.

It is a typically frustrating moment in our family crisis, one that many grown children will have to face, ready or not: We are people in our 50s who are unraveling the finances of parents who can no longer do it themselves.

My wife, Julie, is on the phone with the company where her 82-year-old dad had once worked, trying to change the direct deposit of his pension checks to a bank closer to the assisted-living home where he and his wife now live, which is near us in Pennsylvania. Again and again, she is transferred to the person in charge, “Rose.” And every time, the same recording: “This number has been disconnected.”

In the room next to her, I see our once-usable sofa, covered with her parents’ financial papers from the 1960s to now. On the floor sit a metal tub and plastic cups of coins that we had hauled from the parents’ third-floor walk-up in Queens, New York—a small (but heavy) part of their lifetime of earning and saving, nearly all of it offline.